Los Angeles is getting bitten by a burger boom. Not the fast-food kind, with a pickle and an onion. These are “better burgers” – you order them with apple relish, fig chutney or peanut sauce.
A broiler load of restaurants serving fine-dining versions of America’s quintessential meal have appeared across the city. Even big-name chefs such as Nancy Silverton are firing up their grills.
At least five “better burger” restaurants opened in Los Angeles this year, and four last year.
One chain that has popularized the gourmet burger craze is Counter. The Culver City-based company opened a Pasadena outpost in September, its 22nd location worldwide, and is planning to open 12 to 15 U.S. stores next year, including one in West Hollywood.
“We set out to make it OK for the burger to be a meal again,” said Jeff Weinstein, who opened the first location in 2003. “Counter was at the forefront of this premium burger trend you see people getting into.”
Even during these weak economic times, consumers have been eating their burgers big time. The limited-service hamburger segment grew by 4.1 percent to $64 billion in 2008, the latest available numbers from Chicago food industry research firm Technomic Inc. That’s faster than the 3.2 percent growth of the limited-service restaurant segment in total.
The recession may have helped fire up the gourmet burger market. Analysts said that consumers who used to go out for a steak are trading down to gourmet burgers.
“If you are trading down, you are trading to something you are accustomed to,” said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at Technomic. “There has definitely been a demand by consumers and a resulting growth in what we are calling the better-burger category.”
Weinstein said Counter has seen a 5 percent increase from last year in the number of diners at its restaurants, although the average bill has dropped from about $13.50 to $12.
The burger boom has also resulted in high-profile players looking to get in on the action.
Silverton, of La Brea Bakery and Pizzeria Mozza fame, and business partner Amy Pressman plan to open a burger restaurant next year in Farmers Market at Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, possibly in a now-vacant space formerly occupied by Du-par’s bakery next to the restaurant.
“Burgers are just fun and easy,” Pressman said, “and we are sort of reinventing them so they are a little more interesting.”
Pressman said the pair is planning to offer duck, lamb, pork, turkey and tofu burgers.
“I’ve always loved turkey burgers,” she said. “And we’ve been nailing down our protein blends and I’m really happy with the turkey, it tastes like turkey.”
Other celebrity chefs who have already climbed on the burger bandwagon include Govind Armstrong, who launched his 8 oz. Burger Bar on Melrose Avenue near Fairfax Avenue last year. The trendy establishment offers diners grass-fed Estancia beef burgers with heirloom tomato ketchup and Humboldt Fog cheese for about $12.
Father’s Office in Santa Monica made the gourmet burger a must-eat in the early 2000s, when chef-owner Sang Yoon came up with his now famous “office burger.” The patty is smothered in a bacon-caramelized onion reduction, melted Gruyere blue cheese, arugula and costs about $12.
The success of the Santa Monica restaurant prompted Yoon to open a second location last year in the Helms Bakery complex near Culver City.
“We could have had five or six of these places by now,” Yoon said. “But we grew slowly on purpose. For me, I needed to make sure that I knew what we were doing was not a fluke.”
Father’s Office is an upscale pub that serves an assortment of craft beers and wine alongside its burgers.
And the burger bar concept is the formula for newcomers such as Stout in Hollywood and the Rowdy Red Burger & Wine Bar in downtown Los Angeles.
While Counter serves beer and wine, its restaurants lean more toward traditional diner than gastropub.
Counter’s menu allows diners to customize their burgers, and includes a choice of beef, turkey and veggie patties, or grilled chicken. Diners can also choose from an array of cheeses, toppings and sauces. There are more than 300,000 combinations.
“People want to be in control of what they are eating,” Weinstein said. “We consider it the me generation. Everyone wants to personalize and customize, and Counter strives to give everyone the ability to do that in a fun, energetic forum.”
Although Weinstein considers Counter to be an original purveyor of the gourmet burger, new entrants have started an all-out burger war.
Umami Burger opened its first restaurant in February on La Brea Avenue south of Wilshire Boulevard, and the burger quickly gained a cult following.
Founder Adam Fleischman named the burger joint umami after the Japanese word meaning “tasty.” The word is also referred to as the fifth taste, a combination of the other four: sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
“Burgers are one of the most difficult things to do well,” Fleischman said. “We get steaks and grind them and remold them. We take a fine-dining approach to it, and everything we make is from scratch. I wanted to do them to the best they can be.”
Fleischman opened a second outpost in Los Feliz in October, a third in Hollywood last month and he will be launching an Umami Burger food truck in Santa Monica this month.
Fleischman said Umami Burger’s locations have served more than 100,000 burgers this year that range in price from $9 to $11, and he is projecting to cook up revenue of about $2.5 million with the three restaurants. By comparison, a single Burger King or Wendy’s does about $1.2 million to $1.3 million in sales per year, according to Technomic.
But it’s not just restaurateurs who are taking notice of the sizzling gourmet burger market. Fast-food giants and casual-dining chains have been adding premium burgers to their menus.
McDonald’s and Burger King launched Angus burgers earlier this year in order to cater to the appetite for upscale patties.
Meanwhile, family-dining chain Denny’s introduced its Better Burger in October. The revamped premium burgers are hand-pressed and come in five varieties.
“The ability to customize a burger and upscale into a premium quality meat are significant trends as to why the burger has continued to thrive even during the recessionary times,” Technomic’s Tristano said.
But as more players get into the gourmet burger game, will the appetite for premium beef subside?
“I think at some point, it will get oversaturated like everything else,” said Father’s Office owner Yoon. “You get a hint of success, and a lot of these places start opening new restaurants in a few years. I call that dangerous behavior of wanting to expand too quickly.”
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